Formal Analysis

Form consists of the physical properties of the work.

(1) : orderly method of arrangement (as in the presentation of ideas) : manner of coordinating elements (as of an artistic production or course of reasoning)

(2) : a particular kind or instance of such arrangement <the sonnet is a poetical form>

b : PATTERN, SCHEMA <arguments of the same logical form>

c : the structural element, plan, or design of a work of art --  visible and measurable unit defined by a contour : a bounded surface or volume

(3) The literal shape and mass of an object or figure.

(4) More general, the materials used to make a work of art, the ways in which these materials are used utilized in terms of the formal elements (line, light, color, texture, size and composition.)


6-30. Augustus of Primaporta. Early 1st century CE 
(perhaps a copy of a bronze statue of c.20 BCE.) 
Marble, height 6'8" (2.03m). 
Musei Vaticani, Braccio Nuovo, Rome
Form consists of the physical properties of the work. Whether we look at a sculpture's size, mass, color, and texture or a poem's order of elements and composition, all are part of the work's form. When you are doing a formal analysis, you describe the way that the work looks, feels, and is organized. The next passage is a formal analysis of a work of art; the Augustus of Primaporta is a statue from the first century BCE. 
The statue stands six feet eight inches tall and is made of white marble. It depicts a male figure wearing armor and some drapery, with his right arm raised. The figure carries a bronze spear or staff in his left hand. The texture of the hair and skin mimic the texture of real hair and skin. Augustus stands in contrapposto, appearing to be stepping forward with most of his weight resting on his right hip. Attached to his right leg is a small dolphin with a winged baby on its back. 

Vincent Van Gogh, The Starry Night,Saint-Rémy: June, 1889 Oil on canvas  73 x 92 cm.
Post Impressionist
In Chapter 5 you studied one of the important elements of form called line.

Some of the formal qualities of line are things like, a line can be thick, or thin, dark or light and line can express things. 

Some line is is expressive and some types of lines are more analytical or rational.  Line can be used to define the outlines or contour of a shape.

In Van Gogh's painting, he is using quite a vareity of line and in fact, Van Gogh uses line to define shapes, create space, and even express some kind of emotion. 

One thing that Van Gogh seems to sacrifice or replace with his line quality if chiaroscuro.  If you look at this painting, there is no clearly defined light source.  Often what Van Gogh does to define the edges of a building is that he uses a thick dark outline.

In the sky and tree, he uses a series of counterbalancing or swirling lines to create some sense of movement.  The lines seem to imply some sort of motion as if the sky and the cypress tree in the foreground are actually moving.  This may have been an expression of some sort of energy or agitation on the part of the artist.

This page of drawing on the left by Leonardo da Vinci, is an example of a more analytical and descriptive use of lines.  Leonardo does not use any expressive or implied lines because he is describing in as much detail the structures he is observing scientifically.  Leonardo's line quality is precise and controlled and that is what makes it "analytical."

In order to describe some of the curving shapes he is drawing, he does use hatch marks that curve around the form.  These hatch marks give the forms a sense of volume.


The use of overlapping lines to create form and value is achieved by a technique called "hatching" or "cross hatching."

For example, a transition of light to dark can be achieved by layering lines.

Albrecht Durer uses similar hatch marks and contouring to describe forms but in his drawings you can see that he will some times overlap the hatch marks at right angles to each other in order to describe value structure or chiaroscuro.   Durer also changes the directions of the lines to describe the form. 

For example, the horizontal back wall, is described mainly with horizontal lines.  In order to create the illusion of chiaroscuro, Durer increases the frequency of the lines and overlaps diagonal lines where he wants them to be even darker.


The frequency, darkness, and pattern of how crosshatching is applied can create the illusion of light, volume, and even imply the outline or contour of a form.  The vertical and horizontal lines in the background of this image create a pattern that is interupted by the diagonal lines that are used to shade this sphere.

Another important part of a formal analysis deals with key, also know as shading, value, or chiaroscuro.

By applying shading to objects they are transformed from a two dimensional flat shape, to a thrre dimensional shape with volume.


A simple shape like a circle is transphormed into a sphere by the addition of shading or chiaroscuro.  Artists who understand and can name the components are often able to render these forms and forms like it from their imaginations.  Even when painting por drawing from life, it is possible to use these "equations" to find or recognize when these things happen in the real world.  For example, if you look at the painting by Carravaggio below, you should be able to see how the human head and shoulders are really just a spheres. 
Notice how you can see the core shadow and reflected light on the shoulder and head in this paintings.

When chiaroscuro is used in a high contrast like the image on the left and supplimented by a spot light effect called tenebrism, the effect is quite dramatic.  Caravaggio is credited with being one of the first artists to use this and his followers, Artimisia Gentileschi, and  Velasquez, are sometimes called Caravaggisti, which literally means, a follower of Caravaggio.

Michelangelo Meresi Caravaggio 
Called Carvaggio
Boy Being Bitten by a Lizard c1600
Italian Baroque

Diego Velasquez. Water Carrier of Seville. c1619
oil on canvas 42"x31.75"
Wellington Museum London
Spanish Baroque

Artimisia Gentileschi 
Judith with the head of Holofernes c1625
oil on canvas 72.5 x 55.75"
Detroit Institute of the Arts
Italian Baroque 

Film still from Hitchcock's Strangers on a Train

Even film makers today might be considered "caravaggisti" for their use of chiaroscuro and tenebrism.

This evolution and borrowing of forms, poses, and symbols from one period to another is described as schema and correction.  The schema is the original plan and the correction is the updated version of the original.  The theory that art develops in this manner was first proposed by an art historian named Ernst Gombrich.


These equations concerning light and shadow can be applied to almost any geometric form.

Color is also a major component of doing a formal analysis.
Jan Vermeer, 
Girl with a Pearl Earring c. 1665
Oil on canvas, 46,5 x 40 cm Mauritshuis, The Hague
Dutch, Baroque
Michelangelo Meresi Caravaggio 
Boy Being Bitten by a Lizard c1600
Form: Jan Vermeer is at first glance very much a caravaggisti. His portrait demonstrates a good mastery of the human face as well as chiaroscuro and tenebrism.   Essentially there handling of value structure is the same.

However, where Caravaggio might choose dull earth toned hues (colors), on closer inspection, you can see that Vermeer uses more intense and saturated tones.

In Caravaggio's painting he paints the flesh tones of the young man completely in browns and pinks.  Vermeer's flesh tones are much more colorful.

If you look closely at the core shadow of the girl's cheekbone and under her chin, you will see that Vermeer used some blue and grays in the shadows and that he also shows a bit of yellowish green on her jaw line which is the color of the light reflecting from her garment.

The use of colors that you wouldn't expect to find in things like flesh tones are referred to as non-local color

Vermeer looked very carefully at flesh tones, the colors of drapery, and the colors of walls and shadows and recorded in paint how color changes in response to the light that moves across it.


figure 1
This strip (fig 1) is of the blue cloth across the top of her head.  In figure 2,  I reduced the colors to blocks of tones to allow you to see the value shift as well as the change in the hues.  In figure 2, if you are sensitive to color you may notice that the first two of blocks look kind of greenish.  The third block looks almost like it's pure blue and that the blocks on the far right are brownish blue.  This is because color changes as it moves across an object.

Usually as things are closer to a light source they are yellower of "warmer" in tone and as they move away they become cooler.

figure 2

figure 3

In figure 3 all the other colors have been dropped out of the band.  It only consists of blue with no grays or any yellow are red.  Figure 3 demonstrates a lack of cool to warm relationships.  A similar relationship of warm green to cool blue green also occurs on her blouse.



Contemporary Whirling Logs
Whirling Logs
Navajo Sandpainting Textile
Contemporary Navajo Carpet 1990's

One of the more important elements concerning form is the idea of composition.  Composition can include how things are laid out in two dimensional space or how the picture plane is organized.

For example, the top two images in this illustration are asymmetrical.  The blue circles are not evenly distributed through out each rectangle.

The bottom two most images are symmetrical.  There are balancing elements on each side of the blue sphere in the lower left hand image.  Even though one of the objects is a square and the other a circle, they take up about the same amount of space and have the same visual weight.

The boxes on either side of the tall white rectangle are mirror images of each other and this can be referred to as symmetrical too.  Since you could draw a vertical line down the center of the center rectangle and on each side of this imaginary line it would be a mirror image, this is called bilateral symmetry.

The "Whirling Logs" textile on the left is arranged in a bilaterally symmetrical fashion because we could draw cut the design in half and the left and right sides are nearly a mirror image of each other.  Nevertheless, for all its symmetry, this textile appears kind of flat looking.

Composition also has to do with the creation of the illusion of space.  When we look at pictures (as opposed to sculptures as the Augustus above) we often think of the picture as an imaginary window.  The front of the window, or the glass, is the picture plane that we look through.

In order to create space artists conceive of the picture plane as having three planes that recede back.  In order to create space in the picture plane and the appearance of a foreground, middleground and background we can overlap objects to give this illusion.  If there is nothing overlapped then we can say that there is no real illusion of space in the picture.

These two pictures demonstrate this idea.  If you look at the one on the left, there is very little overlapping in the picture plane and the figures seem to be pressed against this imaginary window. While the one on the right has some overlapping and we can tell that some figures are in front of others.  This overlapping gives us a sense of space.

  Contemporary Whirling Logs
Whirling Logs
Navajo Sandpainting Textile
Contemporary Navajo Carpet 1990's
Little River Simpson Whirling Logs c1999sandpainting

These two sculptural friezes demonstrate these ideas in a three dimensional form.  If you look at the one on the left, there is very little overlapping in the picture plane and the figures seem to be pressed against this imaginary window. While the one on the right has some overlapping and we can tell that some figures are in front of others.  This overlapping gives us a sense of space.

The "Panathanaic Frieze" from the Parthenon sculpted by Pheidias and his assistant, c.440 BCE, Athens, Greece, Classical Greek

Frieze from the Ara Pacis Augustae representing a prosession of Roman citizens, c139 BCE, Rome, Italy, Roman 


Since there are echoing or mirror like parts that come before and after the episode, which is in the center, you could think of the structure of the narrative as being fairly symmetrical.

One of the concepts described in the above passage has to do with how the contrapposto pose of the Augustus statue is derived from an earlier period.  This evolution and borrowing of poses, forms, and symbols from one period to another is described as schema and correction.  The schema is the original plan and the correction is the updated version of the original.  The theory that art develops in this manner was first proposed by an art historian named Ernst Gombrich.

Kouros from Attica (the region surrounding Athens, Greece)
c600 BCE 6' 4" marble
polychrome, encaustic
Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY

Doryphoros (Spear Bearer)
(also called "the Canon")
by Polykleitos c450-440 BC
Roman copy after a bronze 
original marble height 6'6"
tree stump and leg brace 
are later 
Roman additions
Classic, Greek
Another look at schema and correction:

Summary of Gombrich

Renown art historian Ernst Gombrich developed a theory to explain these adaptations and changes and refered to it as schema and correction.  If we were to look at the Archaic period's art and architecture as the plan or schema, we can see how the later Classic period might have taken the archaic art as its schema and updated it in order to make the designs more pleasing according to the  later tastes.  These changes are referred to as the correction.

The next update or correction occurs when the same pose and musculature from the Doryphoros were adopted and adapted for use by the Romans in the portrait of Augustus.

To understand his theory called "schema and naturalization," or "schema and correction." To understand it you basically just need to know the definitions of three words. 

  • Schema is the cultural code through which individuals raised in a culture perceive the world. For example, we recognize stick figures to be humans.
  • Correction is where you take that schema and you compare it to what your senses tell you about the world and then you make it more accurate.
  • Mimesis is the process of correcting your schema.

  • Gombrich's idea can be expanded to looking how later groups can take the earlier work of art and mimic it (mimesis).  This is a kind of Darwinian theory kind of like Darwin's theory of the "survival of the fitest."

    Read some more stuff by Gombrich if it interests you!


    Some interesting ideas that might help you to understand the terms "civilization" and "period" occur when studying the concept of "schema and correction."  Both of these works of art come from the Ancient Greek civilization.  Even though we use the term "ancient" what we are saying is that the Greek civilization occurred a long time ago.  Within the Ancient Greek civilization, is tied to the region of land we now call Greece.  The civilization lasted between circa (approximately) 1000 BCE to about 100 BCE but we divide the Greek civilization into various periods that are defined by the style of art they produced.  For example, the Kouros from Attica, comes from a period we refer to as the Archaic period, which lasted from around 600-480 BCE.  The style associated with this Archaic period is that the sculpture is a bit unrealistic and slightly stylized in a geometric way.  This means that the style of the Archaic period was to make the sculptures look kind of "blocky" and unrealistic.  A later period that occurred during the Ancient Greek civilization is the "Classic Period" which lasted from circa 500 BCE -350 BCE.  The main characteristics are that the sculptures look lifelike or realistic.  So both the "periods" belong to the Ancient Greek Civilization.  The main difference between period and civilization is that period is a kind of style that is a subset of a civilization.  Civilizations go through many periods of development and a civilization is located in one geographic region and spans a longer time.